Wellbeing coach Marilyn Suttle on curbing burnout and attrition

After two years of the pandemic, employees are feeling more stressed and burned out than ever, and the companies that focus on their wellbeing will be the ones to thrive.

The past couple of years have been … challenging, to put it nicely. Most of us have been working remotely, isolated from friends, family, and coworkers, uncertain of what the future might bring, and it has all taken a toll on our mental health. We’re stressed, exhausted, overworked, and burned out.

As a result, resignation rates have been on the rise – a record number of 4.53 million Americans quit their jobs last November, and research shows that 72% of tech employees are thinking of quitting in the next 12 months. This is especially true among employees experiencing increasing demand due to the pandemic, such as support agents, as our latest Customer Support Trends Report shows: 64% of support leaders say their team has felt burned out in the past 12 months.

In the face of what some have dubbed the “Great Resignation”, the question is: how do you get employees to stay? Today’s guest, Marilyn Suttle, has a few ideas on how to do just that.

Marilyn is a customer service and employee wellbeing author, speaker, and coach, and the CEO of Suttle Enterprises, a personal and professional growth training firm. With a background as a human potential trainer, Marilyn has spent most of her career thinking not just about tactical skills, but emotional resilience and wellbeing. And while wellbeing used to be something employees were expected to do on their own time, it’s now become a central question in the workplace. Moreover, it has the potential to better the employee experience, boost productivity, and even improve our reaction to stress.

In today’s episode, we chat with Marilyn about wellbeing practices in and outside the workplace and how to restore good feelings after dealing with stressful situations.

Short on time? Here are a few key takeaways:

  • As a leader, it’s your job to create a stimulating atmosphere where employees feel appreciated and where they feel they have room to make mistakes and grow.
  • Only by creating initiatives that address employees’ physical, emotional, and career wellbeing can you create an environment where stress isn’t met as a threat, but as a challenge.
  • Breathing slowly and counting to 10 triggers a relaxation response in your nervous system, helping you calm down when you’re stressed. Take a minute to savor the good things in life, even if it’s just a warm cup of coffee.
  • We often blow stressful situations out of proportion. Asking yourself: “Is it really as bad as I think it is?” can help you challenge overwhelming feelings and see things more clearly.
  • Being calm in the face of somebody stressed or unhappy helps them feel better. Break the cycle of unhappiness instead of piling on their stress.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.


Post-pandemic stress

Liam Geraghty: Marilyn, thank you so much for being with us today.

Marilyn Suttle: I’m so happy to be here with you, Liam.

Liam: Before we get into it, could you tell us a little bit about your journey so far and how you got to this point?

Marilyn: Well, I spent a year and a half interviewing the best of the best in customer service all the way from Singapore Airlines to local companies in my own hometown, and from those interviews created a book through American Management Association, and from there, full force forward to look at what does it take to have a sustainable culture of customer service. And a big part of that is another branch of my background, which is wellbeing and success principles, which I’ve studied at great length. I’ve combined the two because if you don’t have wellbeing among your employees, they’re going to burn out, especially with today’s climate of customers.

“People are more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation than in an uncertain situation. We’ve got both, and it’s definitely affecting how employees feel in their work”

Liam: For sure. Just before we get onto that, something I read in your background was that you were a human potential trainer. I love the idea of that.

Marilyn: Yes, this was back in 2000. One of my mentors was Jack Canfield, the Chicken Soup for the Soul guy. And I ended up being a trainer on his stages over time, really diving in. I ended up on the National Speakers Association, the whole speaking circuit internationally. The focus there was: how do you handle the emotional aspect of people?

I’ve got my coaching background, and I also did seven years as a wellbeing article writer for a newspaper. So I got to really dive into that. Then, a national brand had me as their success coach for women for seven years. And I did blogs and podcasts for them around how to stay resilient when you’re under pressure.

Liam: You are exactly the person I need to talk to for today’s topic, which, as you mentioned, is about employee wellbeing and life-work integration. Something, I suppose, that came up recently in Intercom’s own Customer Support Trends Report for 2022 – one of the top five trends – was increased team burnout and attrition. And 64% of support leaders say their team has felt burned out in the past 12 months. Marilyn, it seems like there has never been a time where this has been more relevant and crucial than right now.

Marilyn: It’s so true. And a big part of that is because of how human beings react to uncertainty. And man, have we been in uncertainty for a couple of years here. People are more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation than in an uncertain situation. We’ve got both, and it’s definitely affecting how employees feel in their work and the productivity they have. As a matter of fact, Gallup had a stat out that a burned-out employee is more than two and a half times more likely to be actively seeking a different job. So it’s an important topic.

“Managing expectations takes a great deal of not only tactical skills, but emotional resilience and skills like knowing what to say. Words matter”

Liam: As you mentioned, COVID has changed so many things around this and our attitude towards it. How do you think it has changed that attitude? As you say, we’re more comfortable being uncomfortable rather than dealing with uncertainty.

Marilyn: It’s true. And customers have gotten more difficult. It’s all about the expectations. An upset customer is a customer who has an expectation that isn’t being met. And the expectations today can be completely unreasonable or so high that a company cannot possibly meet them. The shortage of staff, the delays in materials. There are so many things that make the customer go, “Wait, that’s not what I expected.” And managing expectations takes a great deal of not only tactical skills, but emotional resilience and skills like knowing what to say. Words matter.

Wellbeing in the workplace

Liam: 100%. That feeds into how employees are actually feeling about that and their wellbeing. What is employee wellbeing, and what can organizations do to support it?

Marilyn: That’s a great question. Some people would call that a sense of ease, peace of mind, flourishing, or even happiness. But whatever you call wellbeing, you know how it feels when you’re feeling it. And when employees don’t have that sense of wellbeing, it affects their productivity, it affects their teamwork, it affects their interactions with customers.

“When you think of wellbeing, it’s not a skill – it’s a practice”

I’ve created a variety of programs to help support companies. I did a six-week course recently with 700 employees on Zoom, and we did the Happy Class. Each session was a session on wellbeing, resilience, mindset, optimism. Optimism is a funny thing because this is one of the three keys to success in your work. But people hear the word optimism and they think, “Oh, pie in the sky. You’re going to be unrealistically optimistic. That just makes me sick to say it.”

But my favorite definition of optimism is: “Optimism is seeing a better and brighter future and taking action to create it.” It’s from John Gordon. And that last part is really important. The ability to see that things can improve and the willingness to take action to improve them.

And so, there are things you could do. In the workplace, you’ve got career wellbeing, but you also have a really strong need for social support. We’ve been isolated due to COVID. We’ve been completely isolated in many ways. You’re working from home, you’re not seeing your friends, you’re not taking the vacations you used to take. The sense of isolation is very hard. That’s why they put prisoners in isolation as a punishment. It’s very stressful. So, it’s about creating a sense of social support in the workplace where you can gain some skills and gain some practice. When you think of wellbeing, it’s not a skill – it’s a practice. And if you stop practicing it, it’s not like riding a bike. You lose it. You have to really practice it to keep it.

“Notice your physical wellbeing and how you sit at your computer all day. Are you crunched over? Are your hands all crimped up?”

Liam: Right. Talking about these important pillars of employee wellbeing, I usually think of things like purpose or physical wellbeing. What are the pillars we should be looking at?

Marilyn: Well, physical wellbeing is definitely one of them. In some of my programs, I’ll just say, “Okay, right now, notice your physical wellbeing and how you sit at your computer all day. Are you crunched over? Are your hands all crimped up? What would it look like if your body was in a state of wellbeing, and how would you have to move things around?” And people start laughing, “Oh, I’m moving right now.” It’s not good for our bodies to be crumpled up like that. There are so many simple things like that if you just look at the physical body. And that’s something that can be encouraged and shared and part of initiatives in the workplace.

Be the sun, not the salt

Marilyn: There’s also, of course, your career wellbeing. People want to feel like their work matters. They want to be appreciated for good work. They want to know there’s room to grow. And here’s the big thing. Dr. Harry Cohen talks about being the sun, not the salt. And I’m like, “Well, what does that mean?” As a leader, think about a plant sitting on a window sill. The leaves will naturally lean toward the sun because the sun is life-giving. But if you pour salt water into the plant, the roots will recoil away because salt water is life-depleting. And much like that, as a leader, we could be the sun or the salt with our employees. We can be a positive energizer or a negative energizer. We can see mistakes as tuition towards your education and a form of accelerated learning, or we can make mistakes be something to be afraid to share because you might lose your job.

“We want to create a culture where people go into the challenge response, not the threat response”

Liam: I suppose that it’s really crucial for company leaders to be involved in that discussion. It’s not just something that we’re maybe having a workshop about – it’s something that is permeating throughout from the top.

Marilyn: Absolutely. It’s the culture. Culture is the way we do things. I like that phrase. And if you ask employees, “Is that the way we really do things?” They’re going to be like, “Not even close.” So we want to align the whole idea of “this is the way we do things.”

One big pillar is around stress because stress is so high. There are actually two kinds of responses to stress. And if a manager understands this, they could really support their employees in being their best. There are two types of responses to stress. One is the threat response, which is fight, flight, or freeze. The freeze will mean procrastination, flight means you’re looking for another job, and fight means you’re going to just push back and be aggravated with the people you work with. We don’t want the threat response. We want the challenge response – to see stress as a challenge.

“To do that, there’s a responsibility to create environments where initiatives are taking place to support their physical wellbeing and their emotional wellbeing”

If you think about those Olympics that are going on right now, those athletes see stress as a challenge they can win and overcome. It’s exciting. When you’re in the challenge response, you go into focus and flow. Have you ever been there where you’re so wrapped up in what you do that an hour goes by and you didn’t even notice it?

Liam: Yeah, absolutely.

Marilyn: It’s the best feeling. We want to create a culture where people go into the challenge response, not the threat response. But to do that, there’s a responsibility to create environments where initiatives are taking place to support their physical wellbeing and their emotional wellbeing. A sense of social support is so needed. Having all of those in place is really important.

Liam: I love the comparison to the Olympic athletes because it just makes so much sense. It’s such a challenge. It’s so difficult for them, but it’s one they are attempting to rise to.

Marilyn: And so rewarding when they get there.

Stress-reducing strategies

Liam: Yeah, absolutely. The American Psychological Association survey from last year, Stress in America 2021, said that people are experiencing their highest levels of stress since the beginning of COVID and showing a lot of stress-related symptoms, poor sleep habits, increased alcohol consumption. And I think one in five surveyed workers say their mental health is worse than it was in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. I’d like to talk about some things employees themselves can do that you mentioned around de-stressing and mindfulness. I know one of them for me is to let go of the phone. Or trying to, anyway,

Marilyn: Yes. Especially the aspect of the phone, where you’re comparing yourself to other people on Instagram or you’re looking at beautiful pictures of people’s picture-perfect life on Facebook that nobody really has, but it’s the image we see because people aren’t going to share the parts where they’re having a fitful night’s sleep or they’re angry at their spouse. They don’t show that aspect. When we compare ourselves to this unrealistic picture, and we’re on our phones all the time, that’s going to take an emotional toll. So here’s the thing. Right away, people can notice what their habits are and then adjust those habits. Ask yourself, are these unhappiness habits or happiness habits? Or you could call it wellbeing habits. And some of those are laying in bed at night, flicking through TikTok over and over again until 2:00 in the morning. We’re looking for a distraction from our own minds.

“When you breathe slowly and deeply, your body says, ‘Wait a minute. Stressed bodies don’t breathe slowly and deeply’”

One practice is breathing, just being fully present in the moment. I remember hearing this breathing thing, and I was like, “Oh, give me a break. Don’t tell me to breathe 10 seconds and count 10 seconds,” that kind of thing. But I interviewed a doctor about this, and here’s why breathing will help restore wellbeing when you’re tense and stressed. You’ve got all these stress hormones going on, and the frontal cortex of your brain, the thinking, reasoning part, shuts the blood flow to that area, slows down, and all your blood flow goes to fight and flight. So when you breathe slowly and deeply, your body says, “Wait a minute. Stressed bodies don’t breathe slowly and deeply.” So it changes from cortisol to feel-good chemicals.

When you count, it’s like rebooting the computer. You reactivate your logic centers. It’s a simple thing. It’s almost so simple, it’s cliche, but it really does work. And one of the best ways to be fully present and mindful is to savor the moment. Savor whatever it is you are enjoying in this particular moment. Taste the coffee. Feel how nice and warm you feel when it’s cold outside. Look around and notice the color of the wall you painted. We dismiss the things that used to bring us pleasure that are all around us. And if you just savor it for one minute or even less, you’re going to restore yourself to a good feeling.

Liam: I love that idea of almost turning it on and off again. Do you know what I mean? It’s something we use all the time in technology, and it’s like a human version of that. And also on that, I suppose taking a walk. I know it’s funny when we talk about these things because they just sound so simple. But we just don’t do them. A lot of people just don’t do them a lot. Something that I find works when I can’t figure out a problem is just taking a walk and not thinking about it.

“We need to challenge our stories. When we’re saying, ‘This is the worst day I could ever have,’ is it true?”

Marilyn: Absolutely. Because it shifts your mood. You can’t think of what to do when you’re in the middle of this need for distraction. When you’re in the middle of stress, it’s really hard to come up with your list. So, make a list of things like take a walk outside, pet your dog, eat an apple. Think of three things that you appreciate right now. What are you grateful for?

And be kind; do an act of kindness. Research shows that when you do something kind for somebody, it comes back tenfold. I was doing a class recently over Zoom, and a man said that he still has a letter that his first boss wrote to him thanking him for the good job he did years ago. And he said, “That meant so much to me that I’ve kept it all these years.”

Liam: It’s almost like self-awareness, isn’t it?

Marilyn: Huge, huge thing, because here’s the thing with self-awareness. When you’re in a stressful situation, there are the facts of the situation and the story you tell yourself. We tend to be more focused on the story we tell ourselves than the facts, and we can blow it up, and every action we take is based on the feelings we have based on our story. So we need to challenge our stories. When we’re saying, “This is the worst day I could ever have,” is it true? When you ask yourself, “Is that true? Is there a way that maybe that’s not true?”, you start to challenge it, and you start to say, “Okay, wait a minute. Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion.”

Breaking the cycle

Liam: I suppose another thing you speak about in your class, the Happy Class, is about judgments, acceptance, and choice. Where do they come into play in all of this?

Marilyn: Well, this is huge because we all have values. When somebody violates a value of ours, we judge it harshly – even with ourselves. For example, when we do something and we wish we hadn’t done that, we’re disappointed in ourselves. We feel guilt. And what is guilt? Guilt is having an expectation of how we should have been that we have failed to be like. And resentment is on the other side of the coin. Resentment is thinking they should have been doing something differently. It violates my values. I would never ask for more than that, and they ask for more than that. And so, it’s really about stepping back and saying, “Is it okay for them to be different than me?” So we’re not taking it personally. It’s that emotional self-awareness.

“We tend to use unhappiness as a motivator, and it doesn’t really work, does it?”

If we’re feeling guilty about something because we ate potato chips and pizza and whatever we did to numb out, and now we’re feeling guilty, the thing to say is, “What will I do differently next time? Can I forgive myself and make new choices? Yes.” And if it’s something you did to someone, for example, you yelled at someone, then you say, “Can I make amends?” There’s always a solution. So being solution-focused instead of problem-focused is a really big shift that makes a huge difference.

Liam: The thing I like about that is that it’s really applicable to all those situations. The pizza one I’m familiar with. But also within work and with dealing with people. Do we use happiness as a motivator as much as we should?

“If I can be calm and present in the face of somebody unhappy, then I can be the mirror that they reflect on as opposed to me reflecting back on their stress”

Marilyn: We tend to use unhappiness as a motivator, and it doesn’t really work, does it? Let’s just say, because this is such a classic example: if your kid’s unhappy, you’re going to be unhappy. I have to be unhappy because you’re unhappy. But all that does is create a cycle of unhappiness. If I can be calm and present in the face of somebody unhappy, then I can be the mirror that they reflect on as opposed to me reflecting back on their stress. It’s a really powerful thing.

If you go to the dentist and you’re nervous, and your dentist picks up on your fear and your stress, you wouldn’t want that dentist working on you. But if the dentist is like, “It’s okay. You can feel your feelings. I’m okay with it.” In this stress-filled world, if you can keep yourself in the state of composure and calm and not judge that the other person is upset, so I have to be, or I’m a bad person, then you’re going to help that stressful person rise up to your level of awareness or your level of calm. We tend to naturally mirror each other’s emotions. And we want to break that cycle because we’re surrounded by a lot of stressed people.

The future of employee wellbeing

Liam: I suppose one thing I was wondering about was the future of employee wellbeing because we’ve been talking about it for a long time, and it seems to have come to the fore now more than ever. We definitely needed it, but now we really, really need it. What is the future of it, do you think?

“Before, it was like, ‘Wellbeing? Oh, do that on your own time’”

Marilyn: I’m seeing this already with a lot of companies I’m working with. They’re taking this very seriously. They’re doing surveys of their employees to see what kinds of things they can provide to help with their wellbeing. They’re putting initiatives together, and they’re changing their culture to include that. Before, it was like,” Wellbeing? Oh, do that on your own time.” The problem is we’re integrated. Work and life are integrated, and it’s never going back. People got really comfortable working from home, and it’s going to be hybrid. And to be successful, we need to embrace how to create a culture of wellbeing. That’s the direction the ones that are going to survive and thrive in the future really need to hold onto.

Liam: That’s so interesting. We now have this hybrid system which, for a huge amount of people, is absolutely fantastic. It’s transformed their way of working and they really enjoy it. But it has brought some other issues around work-life balance that I suppose we just need to be aware of and looking into.

Marilyn: Absolutely. It wasn’t even on their radar. And now people are like, “Oh, I’m more productive.” Some people, not everybody, but I’m more productive at home. My husband works three days in the office and two days at home now, and he loves it. He’s got the best of both worlds for him. And the other aspect is looking at the temperature of your people, your service providers. A real popular activity people are doing on TikTok is Purge Day. Have you heard of Purge Day?

Liam: No, I haven’t. What is Purge Day?

Marilyn: There are 1,000,001 skits on Purge Day. And it’s where an employee is allowed to say and do anything they want without any repercussion. It’s just a fun release where you get to say the things you would never say.

“There has never been a time where emotional intelligence and social skills have been more important”

The other thing is we have to train customers to be more respectful. We went really far in exceeding expectations and wowing and, “If you complain, I’ll give you everything free,” and that’s not viable for some companies. So, we have to manage the customer’s expectations. This is a social media world where some people are walking into businesses with their cameras on, ready for a confrontation because it gives them social clout. We’ve got all these different varieties of people and motivations. So there has never been a time where emotional intelligence and social skills have been more important.

Let the warm water flow

Liam: And just before we wrap up, Marilyn, what’s next? Do you have any plans or projects for 2022?

Marilyn: I do. Well, I have three books right now, and I’m working on my next one. And it’s all going to be based on, “Here’s a situation. Here’s what you can say. And here’s why.” Being nice is not enough. Being friendly is not enough. Sometimes you have a customer or an employee, and you’re saying everything right, you’re saying all the logical facts, and they become even angrier. It’s like, “What just happened?”

“If you let them vent and say what they feel, once they feel heard, warm feelings start to flow and they’re more receptive to having a good conversation”

And what happened is you haven’t acknowledged the emotional component. You haven’t validated their feelings. You haven’t acknowledged where they are right now. So you meet them where they are to take them where you want to go. When you turn on the shower in the morning, cold, prickly water comes out. And if you let it run, warm water will flow. Same when somebody vents or they’re upset. If you let them vent and say what they feel, once they feel heard, warm feelings start to flow and they’re more receptive to having a good conversation.

Liam: I love that. We’ll be on the lookout for that book. And so lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work?

Marilyn: They can go to my website at marilynsuttle.com. Or you could find me on LinkedIn.

Liam: Excellent. Will we find you on TikTok doing any purging?

Marilyn: Oh, no, no, no.

Liam: Marilyn, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Marilyn: Oh, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

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